Museum Director Musings: Tangents, Twists and Turns in Family History Research

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In my nearly thirty years of working with local history, I’ve been very fortunate to meet and work with many persons investigating their family and area histories.  Each story is different and they are all intriguing.  Invariably, these researchers are learning about aspects of their ancestry that they only recently discovered and inevitably there are twists and turns in those stories that were entirely unexpected.

A couple of weeks ago, Tom Castro came to the Homestead because he’d learned not long ago that his great-grandfather, Daniel Sexton, had a connection to William Workman, who established the site in 1842.  What was remarkable about meeting Tom is that his surname of “Castro” was an invention by his grandfather, Sexton’s son, William.

The 1910 federal census listing “William J. Castewa” in Roseville, California, near Sacramento.  William was actually William J. Sexton, but changed his name in the 1890s, allegedly due to a criminal incident that led him to abandon his given surname.

William was born in 1866 to Daniel and Pacifica Sexton, the latter a native Indian, and resided in San Gabriel and San Bernardino during his early years.  Yet, before 1900, William reinvented himself as William “Castewa,” which Tom took to be pronounced, literally, as “Castaway.”  In other words, William had been “cast away” from his family because of what may have been a criminal matter.  William used this surname in the 1900 and 1910 censuses, while living in Roseville, near Sacramento.

However, by the 1920 census, William refashioned his surname into “Castro,” which remains the family name to this day.  Tom, who was a longtime teacher and lives in northern California, discovered that his grandfather was born a Sexton and launched further investigations into his family history once that twist was revealed!

Tom was also surprised to learn what an interesting character his great-grandfather Daniel Sexton was and shared much information with me.  What I already knew about Sexton was fairly limited.  Born in Louisiana, Sexton wound up in New Mexico in 1841 just as John Rowland, William Workman and other foreign residents of the Taos area were planning to leave for California.

In this letter to the Los Angeles Times of 2 July 1891, Sexton claimed that a half-century earlier his knocking down of an Indian in New Mexico led to the formation of the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841.  The party’s creation is usually accounted to broader political issues there involving a planned invasion of Texans that transpired the following spring.

The so-called “Rowland and Workman Expedition [or Party]” left Santa Fe about the beginning of September, after some 25 or so New Mexicans, including one who served as the crucial guide for the group, joined at the town of Abiquiu, took the 1,200-mile pack mule route called the Old Spanish Trail.  The trail went northwest through a bit of modern Colorado and into central Utah.  From there, it veered southwest into Nevada (with a little stop at a desolate watering hole called “Las Vegas”) and through Mojave to Cajon Pass and down into the Los Angeles basin.

It was 5 November 1841 (a date that stood out to the British-born Workman, because that day is Guy Fawkes Day, an English holiday) that the expedition made landfall at Mission San Gabriel.  John Rowland presented a list of members of the party to local authorities and Sexton was noted as being a carpenter.

I knew that Sexton lived for many years near the Mission San Gabriel, tinkered as an inventor, and raised protests against the claim that Workman and others had for the lands surrounding the mission during the 1850s and 1860s.

The listing of Sexton and three Indians, including his wife Pacifica, at San Gabriel in the 1850 federal census, taken on 12 February 1851.

Tom provided much more information about Sexton, including the fact that, soon after his arrival in the area in 1841 he went to work at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in present Chino and Chino Hills and did extensive lumbering in the San Bernardino Mountains.  When American forces invaded California during the Mexican-American War, Sexton enlisted as a volunteer for the former.  He participated in the Battle of San Pasqual near San Diego, in which Californios routed an ill-supplied and poorly positioned American force, worked to prevent the execution of Americans captured by Californios at the Chino ranch, and carried out dangerous missions as a messenger.

Notably, when John C. Fremont, one of the American commanders during the California campaign, ran for United States president in 1856 as the first candidate of the Republican Party, Sexton wrote a letter published in the Los Angeles Star lambasting the “Pathfinder” as cruel and cowardly, while praising Californios for their bravery and honor in defending their homeland.

Another letter by Sexton to the Times, 3 August 1891, concerning his role in the Mexican-American War.

Sexton became very friendly with native aboriginal Indians in the greater Los Angeles region.  When he worked tin mines at Temescal near today’s Corona and Lake Elsinore, the Cahuilla Indian chief whose lands included these mines induced Sexton to marry his niece, Pacifica.  The couple was married nearly a half-century and raised a large family, including Tom’s grandfather, William.

After living in San Gabriel and San Bernardino, Sexton and his family settled in Colton, a railroad town near San Bernardino, where Pacifica died in 1894 and Sexton followed four years later, almost completely forgotten.  Daniel and Pacifica are, in fact, buried in unmarked graves at the Hermosa Gardens Cemetery in Colton.

An obituary for Sexton, reprinted in the San Bernardino Sun from the Colton News, 7 May 1898.  

One of Tom’s hopes is that his great-grandfather is not neglected when it comes to the history of greater Los Angeles in the 19th century.  Sexton’s part in the Rowland and Workman Expedition, which arrived as eastern overland migration to California began, is significant. With the Mexican-American War, Sexton’s role at San Pasqual is a notable one.  His 1856 letter in the Star, as well as another in the same paper three years later concerning J.J. Warner, a longtime resident of Los Angeles and Warner Springs in northern San Diego County, are rare personal recollections of a local resident of that period.  His early lumber activities in the mountains and his mining of tin at Temescal are also of interest.

More details of some of the materials shared by Tom about Daniel Sexton will be posted in this blog in the future as will more information about the Rowland and Workman Expedition, so stay tuned!

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Ruth Ann, thanks for checking out the post; it was fascinating to learn about Tom’s story.

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